SA unions: still seeking a coherent political role

Posted on November 2, 2019


After weeks observing at first hand the ongoing and stalled shambles that is Brexit, I have returned to be reminded that, within the local labour movement, lunacy of a similar sort persists. And here it has been going on for much longer than the three years-plus of Britain’s bumbling attempts to leave or stay in the European Union.

In both cases, it seems as if the majority of the various groups involved are determined to stick doggedly to previously held positions, ignorant of — or simply ignoring — realities on the ground. Contradiction riddled circular arguments seem to be the order of the day.

In the South African case, I refer, of course, to the professed goal of a labour movement that, for the most part, still cherishes the idea of unity of all organised workers in “one union, one industry, one federation, one country”. But the last combined attempt to make this a reality was 23 years ago.

As the registrar of trade unions informed me this week, there are now 207 registered trade unions — an increase of 17 over the past year — with a total membership of some 3.8 million workers. If agricultural, forestry and domestic workers are taken into account, this would barely constitute 20% of a workforce which, according to Stats SA, has a less than 60% participation rate in the economy.

Of five registered labour federations, one now exists in name only and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) is all but moribund, torn apart by political bickering. Its largest affiliate, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), has also left. The Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) seems to have maintained its position, but is currently embroiled in a legal battle with its sacked former general secretary.

Nactu and the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), were the federations that emerged from the militant modern unions that were to the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle. Cosatu is now severely weakened following the expulsion of its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the departure of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU).

Numsa, FAWU and several earlier breakaways from Cosatu affiliates now form the core of the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), headed by former —and expelled — Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. But, in 1996 the then three existing federations came together to present to government a carefully crafted macro economic policy.

The union policy document was based on redistribution leading to economic growth, the antithesis of the growth first, “trickle down” theories proposed by business. Proposals included public ownership, board level participation and a progressive tax regime along with nationalisation as one mechanism to achieve an egalitarian goal.

Ironically, the document, Social Equity and Job Creation — The Key to a Stable Future, was based on the policy draft of the ANC’s own Macro Economic Research Group that had been dumped without debate by President Nelson Mandela in 1993. Had the proposals of the combined labour movement been accepted, the argument of Cosatu that it was correct to be part of the ANC-led alliance, might have won the day.

The other federations and many unionists remained sceptical. And their scepticism was vindicated when the government responded by producing a quite skimpy, “growth first” outline entitled Growth, Employment and Redistribution. This was the GEAR programme that subsequently came to be derided — by the SA Communist Party (SACP) and much of the union movement — as “the 1996 class project”.

But while Fedusa (then Fedsal) and Nactu withdrew and tensions mounted within Cosatu, the response by Cosatu, backed by its designated “workers’ party”, the SACP, was to blame President Thabo Mbeki for the pro-business orientation of the ANC. Together they launched the “Zuma tsunami” that brought President Jacob Zuma to power.

“My biggest mistake,” admits Vavi. It was a mistake that, in a convoluted way, resulted in the formation in April 2017 of Saftu, seen in some quarters as the beginning of the end of the major division that has plagued unity: the political role of trade unions.

But Saftu’s conference decision to be “socialist orientated” and to “discuss the need for a workers’ party” raised concerns that history was repeating itself. Tahir Maepa deputy general manager of the Fedusa-affiliated PSA (Public Servants Association) noted at the time: “Unions need complete independence; they can’t serve two masters without creating a victim of one or the other.”

Such concerns were reinforced when, shortly before the May elections, Numsa launched the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP). There are now two proclaimed workers’ parties on the labour landscape, the SACP and the SRWP.

This seems to have taken the argument back to square one, only having compounded the original problem. Attitudes on all sides appear to be hardening, with the only faint glimmer of hope being the call for a “national gathering” next year of unions, civil society organisations and “Left formations” to debate the way forward.

Since it is being called by Saftu, this gathering may be seen as yet another political ploy and may fizzle out, as have several other similar ventures in the past. That would be a pity since the labour movement and the country are in crisis. And, with the impact of automation and the digital revolution being increasingly felt, the unions — as putative protectors of the working majority and potential pillars of democracy — had better move fast if they wish to remain relevant in the future.